This is a guest post from Justin Haines, Director of the Foreclosure Prevention Unit at Legal Services NYC – Bronx. Justin has lead the Center’s training effort for citywide advocates for the past two years; he is our network expert on the all things related to the tax lien sale.
This year, in coordination with the Center for NYC Neighborhoods, Legal Services NYC-Bronx was able to join Bronx tax lien outreach events that assist homeowners in avoiding the annual lien sale.
We were eager to attend the outreach events for several reasons. First, because we believe that if someone is unable to pay their property tax bill, water bill, or HPD charges, they will very likely have issues paying their mortgage payment, as well. Second, we wanted to see how effective the Department of Finance (DOF) and Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) were in assisting homeowners who were seeking help on their own, without an advocate. Some homeowners had reported encountering problems when they sought payment plans at the borough service centers and we hoped these events would provide a better experience for distressed homeowners. Finally, we were interested to see how many homeowners would come out to the event and we wanted to understand what outreach methods the agencies used to encourage people to attend.
The first event I attended was sponsored by Council Member Annabelle Palma in the Soundview neighborhood of the Bronx. The event was well-organized. There were approximately 10 DEP stations set up with DEP staff at tables with computers, printers, and scanners. There were about four or five DOF stations similarly set up. I got the sense that homeowners were anxious and worried, but treated very respectfully by agency staff. I noticed that many homeowners who were waiting had letters in their hands from the elected official sponsoring the event on his or her letterhead. I believe that homeowners may have also been robo-called. Both methods of outreach seem to have been effective because many homeowners attended this event.
At this event, I was given my own table and I brought brochures advertising our foreclosure prevention services, our foreclosure prevention walk-in court clinic, AGScamHelp scam prevention materials, and NYS-MAP loan information (which now can be used to resolve lien sale foreclosures). I also handed out flyers for our office so that people could contact me later at their own convenience. Being at the event allowed me to have several private conversations with homeowners in need of our services.
Bronx Council Member Andy King at a tax lien sale outreach event
The second outreach event I attended, sponsored by Council Member Andy King in the North Bronx/Williamsbridge section of the Bronx, had an even stronger showing. There was a steady line and very few seats were open in the waiting area. Councilmember King announced the availability of our office’s assistance in a speech at the beginning of the event. As a result, I was able to speak with more homeowners. I was shocked at how many homeowners told me that they had tried working with private attorneys who were expensive and still did not get them a mortgage modification. Homeowners were hungry for help.
When it comes time next year to get the word out about the tax lien sale, I would urge housing counselors and legal services providers in all five boroughs to participate in as many community events as possible. Your presence in the community as problem-solving housing experts is critical.